Monday, December 28, 2009

Comprehensive anti-recidivism legislation out of New Jersey

A New York Times editorial published on Christmas Eve titled "Smart Answers to Recidivism" highlights pending reentry legislation out of New Jersey that the Grey Lady suggests should be a national model:
New Jersey lawmakers heard some depressing testimony in hearings leading up to the legislation. Deterred by barriers to jobs, housing and education, about two-thirds of the people released from prison in New Jersey end up back inside within three years. Since taxpayers spend about $48,000 per prison inmate per year, by some estimates, the state could reap significant savings from even a small decline in the return-to-prison rate.

The proposed reforms in New Jersey seek to end practices under which former prisoners are denied employment because of minor convictions, even in the distant past, and crimes that have nothing at all to do with the work being sought.

No reasonable person would suggest that a sex offender be given a job in an elementary school or day-care center. An ex-offender could not be disqualified for employment unless the offense was directly related to the job. Job seekers would no longer be required to disclose convictions on applications for state, county or municipal jobs. The offenses could still be uncovered in background checks, but they would no longer automatically rule out an applicant from the start.

The bill would lift the state ban on food stamps and welfare benefits for people with felony drug convictions and would expand education and training opportunities for inmates. And it would end an odious practice under which the prison system earns a profit by overcharging poor families for the collect calls they receive from relatives inside a system. The added cost sometimes forces families to choose between putting food on the table or letting a child speak to an incarcerated parent.

The New Jersey Legislature has a chance to provide a new lease on life to thousands of families while offering a model for the rest of the nation.
All of these are smart suggestions. The idea of not requiring disclosure of criminal history on job applications has become colloquially known as "banning the box" (i.e., the "box" you must check if previously convicted of a crime), a tactic Travis County introduced last year with no known ill-effects. Employers still perform background checks before hiring, but don't screen out ex-offenders automatically on the front end.

Eliminating state bans on food stamps and welfare benefits could prevent placing ex-offenders in the position of having no options besides illegal activity to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. After the Clinton-era welfare reforms, that still doesn't mean they'll be supported by the state ad infinitum. But especially during a recession when jobs are scarce, the move mitigates to some extent economic motivations for crime. Coupled with expanded education and training opportunities that steer ex-offenders into the workforce, the suggestion makes a lot of sense.

And eliminating price gouging on jail and prison phone calls makes the most sense of all. There's not even a "punishment" justification for that, since the only people it harms are the offenders' families, who should be viewed as allies to prevent recidivism but instead are treated as cash cows mulcted by the state six ways from Sunday.

Texas only recently installed phones in prisons and expanded prisoners' access, but part of the justification for allowing it was the ability to profiteer off inmates' families. Lowering rates to market levels would increase communication with families and make it more likely offenders will be successfully reintegrated when they return home.

That sounds like a pretty comprehensive piece of state legislation. Any one piece of it would be a significant victory; collectively it's a particularly impressive effort that I hope succeeds and is replicated elsewhere.


sunray's wench said...

Well done New Jersey!

The Texas phone system doesn't just penalise families with high call charges (they actually aren't that high really), but it does penalise anyone who does not have a landline phone in their own name, or anyone who lives overseas - which apparently includes Alaska and Hawaii, as well as Canada and Mexico and the rest of the world. It also penalises anyone in a care home (elderly parents of inmates) who may have a phone line, but in the Care Home's name and not theirs.

Perry missed a trick with that one.

Anonymous said...

These suggestions increase the likelihood that those returning to the community from prison (50,000 -70,000/year in Texas) will be able to rebuild their lives as law abiding and contributing members of society. They recognize that collateral sanctions create artificial barriers to reestablishing stable lives and families which are counter-productive and a threat to public safety as they push people into desperate circumstances.

Public safety is not attained with punitive sanctions that drive up the incentives for formerly confined persons to commit new crimes in order to obtain basic necessities of life - food, shelter, clothing.

Such policies are short sighted, ineffective, destructive and expensive.

shg said...

As you say, any one piece of this legislation would be good. But comprehensive, it's not.

We have a couple of decades of accepted "tough on crime" legislation to undo, and it requires taking a few steps back to see the comprehensive scope of needed reform. Every step forward is better than where we were before, but we still have a long road ahead of us.

In the scheme of what's needed to return prisoners to society to lead law-abiding and productive lies, these reforms are still relatively small and, at best, are tweaks around the edge. There is still much to be done.

Anonymous said...

It isn't surprising that New Jersey and the New York Times were set up as the model to follow by the far left.

Even the New York Times pointed out the far left move in New Jersery. Check out this recent NY Times article:

Hey, Massachusetts, New Jersey Is Passing on the Left.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

11:08, I fail to see what is "far left" about reducing recidivism. Don't conservatives want criminals to reoffend less often? I'd always supposed so, but perhaps not?

TDCJ EX said...

There is nothing conservative about today's so-called "conservatives" on the far right. If anything they are , fascists . They have turned the US into the land of the endless punishment, where after a person has paid their debt still punished with. The so-called "tough on crime" laws. It seems to be nearly impossible to explain that if a person cannot find employment and make ends meet, that they will resort to whatever means necessary in order to survive. Often that means reoffending or in some cases, committing their first criminal offense and there are thousands to choose from.

How is making life miserable and survival extremely difficult for someone that you don't like simply because they committed a felony . "Tough on crime ?" I would think that so-called conservatives would want less recidivism, so they would could pay less taxes to keep people locked up. Where do they think all of this money is coming from the Magic Money Tree?

Incarceration is incredibly expensive on the taxpayer. Wouldn't it be less expensive if those who are released from prison or have finished parole or probation are able to find meaningful good pain of employment and receive assistance one through like the rest of society no fault of their own lose their jobs if they happen to find one or need temporary assistance when they're released from prison because they can't find a job? I suppose it's good political pandering and fear mongering.

I suppose they don't mind paying high taxes . So they can exact endless punishment for the most petty of offenses. If the " tough on crime" lunatics got their way all the time someone caught with a miniscule amount of marijuana would be branded and punished for life. Unable to find employment, education shelter who and what does one think they will do in order to survive. Simply take it accept what's dished out to them ? Life doesn't work that way.

Why don't they just be honest about what they really want revenge, and a lifelong punishment for every real and imagined criminal offense.

These you will conservatives really could care less about public safety. As long as they remain in power , convicts and ex-convicts make the near perfect scapegoats . After all who must be seen as "coddling criminals" and be labeled a " thug hugger." I suppose the people that let Scooter Libby get off are " soft on crime" and" thug huggers.?"

Anonymous said...

With is this crap of the "Far Left" or "Far Right" that is hard or soft on crime bills? We just spend two months at the state Capitol this last session fighting bad bills. I saw the finger prints of both parties on these sorry pieces of legislation. Both the "Left and "Right" are guilty of using crap fighting crime bills to gain political power and votes on the backs of the RSO. As it stands now the US is primarily Democratically far "Left" . I have not seen the God Obama, Pelosi, Reed or the rest pushing for new "Hope and Change" to the RSO issue, have you???

Anonymous said...

Sadly it appears a Cirino Gonzalez was arrested there but is currently housed at a medium to max Federal Corrections Institution In Phoenix, Arizona where last weekends shooter is also being held while according to the pre sentence report, he was supposed to be located in a low to medium security facility ...